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Wednesday, August 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The Washington State Department of Archeology – Indiana Jones they’re not

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The most famous archaeologist in the movies carried a bullwhip and found the key to the map room on the back of an ancient medallion.

An archaeologist from the state of Washington carries a database and the key to the secret layer on Wisaard. The acronym stands for the Washington Information System for Architectural and Archaeological Records Data.

And if you own rural or suburban property, you might find yourself facing the Wisaard.

The Wisaard is maintained by the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation to document historic and prehistoric resources across the state, both above ground and below. For anyone contemplating building on a rural site, knowing how to avoid sensitive sites would be useful.

But in the understandable interest of protecting archaeological resources from amateur Indiana Jones impersonators, the Geographic Information System map level showing known and predicted locations is secured from public access.

The redacted map layer includes not only known sites but potential archaeological sites. It’s the predictive algorithm defining potential sites that creates a particular burden on property owners.

The Washington Statewide Archeology Predictive Model Report was completed June 30, 2009. It rates parcels under public and private ownership for their potential to contain subsurface artifacts of human occupation and use. The predictive model says there might be something there, prove there isn’t. It is being used to burden property owners with the cost of archaeological surveys to feed data into the Wisaard.

The preservation department worked closely with tribal archaeologists to identify possible areas of archaeological interest. There’s a detailed explanation of the factors used to make the determinations.

In summary, is it close to water, and does it look like a good place to set up camp? The same places are attractive to humans today for the same reasons.

Lee Pardini of Kettle Falls didn’t know about the Wisaard until he filed a short plat for four parcels along the Columbia River in Stevens County.

An archaeologist with preservation department introduced him to the Wisaard and implied he’d be required to pay for an archaeological survey at a cost of several thousand dollars to prove there is nothing below ground, as a condition of receiving approval for the short plat.

Pardini did his research. The law does not require owners to do surveys in advance of any disturbance of the site. The short plat was approved.

But the request for a study will pop up again in the building permit process. Building a house, adding a garage or even a new fence line on property in a zone recommended for study carries potential cost, delays and limitations.

Jenni Anderson, supervising planner for Stevens County, said it’s rare for general landowners to know about the database. It usually comes up because a project requires a State Environment Policy Act checklist. The county checks the checklist against the Wisaard, and the checklist is routed to various state agencies and to the local tribes for comment.

Once triggered, a property owner may be required to pre-emptively mitigate the possibility of uncovering artifacts with an archaeological study and review that can add more than a year to the project at a time when they’re ready to start digging.

It gets more complicated when a property is offered for sale. The closest thing to a utility company’s 811 Call Before You Dig is filing preservation department Form EZ-1 with proof of ownership.

But according to Larry Wathne, broker with Coldwell Banker in Colville, “Here’s the challenge: The property owner is not allowed by law to tell anyone.”

A seller can only say archaeological sites are or are potentially present, and refer the buyer to the preservation department for further information.

Except the preservation department won’t give out information to anyone but the legal owner. The buyer has to purchase the property to find out what’s in it.

Conflicting obligations for disclosure and confidentiality have made this a key issue for the Washington Association of Realtors in the next legislative session. Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, has been in discussions with staff checking out suggested solutions.

“There needs to be transparency for buyers and sellers,” she said. “We need to sit down with all parties, including the tribes, and figure out a fair process.”

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